From a March 2009 email interview with Thomas Curwen:
Q: How did you first meet Edwin Shneidman, and what made him interesting to you?
A: I met Edwin Shneidman in 1999 when I was working on a story about suicide prevention, and in the course of that reporting, he was able to help me understand the mystery behind a friend’s death.
Over the last two years, we maintained an acquaintance, and last fall he invited me to a publication party for his latest book. At the time he told me that he didn’t expect to live much longer, and the more we talked, the more I realized that he might be able to help me understand my parents’ recent deaths. Like Dr. Shneidman, they had been ill, living at home, and whenever I spent time with them, I wondered how they understood life—with its implicit promise of a future—when death was so near.
Q: Since you’ve written on Shneidman before, what made you decide to do another story?
A: While I had written about Dr. Shneidman before, those stories were reported. The second article in particular considered his accomplishments and his unique perspective in the field of suicide prevention. They were not narratives.
Last fall when I saw him facing his final months, I was challenged to tell a story about his day-to-day life. I was drawn not only to the challenge of presenting this material but also conveying its emotional richness.
Q: “Waiting for death” doesn’t have much action. Can you talk about how you decided to structure the story given the absence of big events?
A: After spending a couple of afternoons with Dr. Shneidman, talking with him about his life and watching how he lived, I realized that the most simple narrative structure would follow a 24-hour chronology.
Once I had completed my interviews, I set up one day in his dining room from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. During that time he and I tried to keep apart from one another. The baby monitor that his care-givers used to listen to him from afar helped me keep track of him. I listened as he slept, as he spoke to his care-givers, as he opened his mail, watched TV and visited with a few friends, and I recognized that in between these moments I could slip in the details of his life, his philosophy—and his waiting.
From the outside looking in, there is an absence of big events, but I believed if I could get the reader inside his head—and keep the story as close to his point of view as possible—then every small event would have its own inherent drama.
Q: You and photographer Liz Baylen came up with very different material for your respective pieces. Did you coordinate in any way, or worry about redundancy?
A: I was nearly half-way through with the first draft of the story when Liz Baylen met Dr. Shneidman. Because the story was so quiet and seemingly uneventful, she realized that she would have to spend a couple of days with him in order to come up with a variety of images. There was always a risk that the photographs might become redundant, but the more time she spent in the house, the more the subtle details began to emerge. She eschewed shooting with a digital camera and instead worked with film, using a 2¼-format camera that forced her to craft each shot slowly and patiently.
Watching her work, I realized that we didn’t need to coordinate our vision of the story. I felt that her interpretation of Dr. Shneidman’s life was just as valid as mine, and if they differed, they would only give readers a more complete picture of how he lives. That said, I don’t think our material is all that different.